Frank Norris' novel McTeague was the basis for Erich von Stroheim's film Greed. Though he had purchased the rights to it, he never got the production off the ground until Irving Thalberg, disgusted with von Stroheim's method of extravagant production on Merry-Go-Round, quarrelled with him, and von Stroheim was dismissed as Universal's most prestigious director/producer. It did not take long for von Stroheim to sign with Goldwyn studios, where it was soon announced that his first production would be a film depiction of McTeague.
The Norris novel is a dramatic and sordid but realistic preachment of the evils of greed. Heretofore von Stroheim had epitomized the grand scene. At Universal he had directed three big features that showed life on an extravagant scale: his characters were all venal and recklessly amoral; they were decadent, and offered to the public under such lurid titles as Blind Husbands, The Devil's Passkey, and Foolish Wives. His characters were the rich in an Alpine background, on the boulevards and in the boudoirs of Paris, and in the gambling casino at Monte Carlo, which was reconstructed on the Universal lot. McTeague took place wholly in California, specifically in San Francisco, Oakland and the Bay area, and Death Valley, in a very lower middle class, even depressed, society. The title character was a dentist from the lower classes who practiced his dentistry illegally. Both he and the girl he marries, Trina, are crass, uneducated vulgarians possessed and destroyed by a love for gold. It seemed unlike anything von Stroheim had attempted in his previous films.
Early in pre-production, the project was referred to as Greed, and the name soon became the accepted title. Deliberately doing a turnabout, von Stroheim saw it as a venture completely shot in its natural setting, the Bay area, as far as he could get from the studios of Hollywood. The company would even go to Death Valley to film the bitterly ironic finale of the story. He saw the project as a faithful adaptation of the Norris novel, an almost page-by-page recreation of a well-known American novel of the naturalist type. The film grew to monstrous proportions, eventually reaching an estimated nine-and-a-half hours. The studio forced von Stroheim to severely edit it. Secretly, his good friend, Rex Ingram, saw the film and helped him cut one version, but June Mathis was later called in to edit it down to under three hours. It remained, however, a hopelessly gargantuan project. Characters had to be eliminated so that the main story of McTeague, Trina, and Schouler became entirely the story of Greed.
Ironically, it was Irving Thalberg who ordered the drastic cuts in Greed. Thalberg had moved from his berth with Carl Laemmle at Universal to join the new Metro-Goldwyn. He was soon to become head of production at the amalgamated Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, where after Louis B. Mayer officially became head of production, he had his own unit. His first concern was to shape Greed out of the mountainous reels of footage which von Stroheim had so recklessly shot. It was at his order that Greed was released in 1924, but only a quarter of it contained footage shot by von Stroheim. That salvaged edition is the only one unreeled at von Stroheim retrospectives nowadays. The unused film was ordered melted down so that the silver in the negative could be salvaged. There would be no ultimate rediscovery of footage unused and fitted into subsequent re-issues of the picture. It would be another chapter in the obliteration of von Stroheim's name as a great director. Not one film he made exists as he originally envisioned it. All have been cut either maliciously or out of necessity. Only one may have escaped obliteration – Universal's The Devil's Passkey, but it is a lost picture. To date, no print whatsoever has survived.
The legend surrounding von Stroheim's name as a great creative director survives, however, nurtured by those who have read the original McTeague written by Frank Norris. There are moviegoers who can relate whole sequences of the film that are just not in the final print. Memorable, however, in the released film are such treasured moments as the wooing of Trina under sedation in a dental chair; the miserably unromantic, even comic, wedding of Trina and McTeague; the brutalization of Trina by McTeague, leading to her murder and his escape with the gold she had even slept with; McTeague's meeting with onetime friend, Marcus Schouler, and their journey across Death Valley. Schouler is slain by McTeague, but before Schouler dies, he handcuffs himself to McTeague, and the picture fades out on McTeague sitting in the murderous heat of Death Valley handcuffed to a corpse he slew.
Greed made no profit either domestic or foreign. Costing $585,000 to film (a fortune in the mid-1920s), Greed showed a gross of only $277,000 domestically, and the foreign receipts were even more disappointing. The world's moviegoing public simply resisted Greed. Von Stroheim and his few faithful cohorts could quite honestly say that the picture as he filmed it was never released. The studio also alibied that Greed never stood a chance of success as a product from a studio noted for creating stars. There were no box-office names in Greed. The cast was hand-chosen by von Stroheim himself – ZaSu Pitts, Gibson Gowland, and Jean Hersholt, who had never brought in a dime on their own. They were more often featured in comedies, as were fellow cast members Dale Fuller, Chester Conklin, and Hughie Mack, and Greed was certainly no comedy.
A few years later, when von Stroheim had chalked up a few more disasters, he abandoned his directorial career for a successful one as an actor. He had often played in some of his own pictures, but as an actor he is a recognizable star in Renoir's La grande illusion and in Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard.
Release Date: 1924
Starring: Jack Curtis, Tempé Piggot, Gibson Gowland, Günther von Ritzau, Florence Gibson, Gibson Gowland, Jean Hersholt, Chester Conklin, Sylvia Ashton, ZaSu Pitts, Austin Jewell, Oscar and Otto Gotell, Joan Standing, Frank Hayes, Fanny Midgley, Max Tyron, Hughie Mack, Tiny Jones, J. Aldrich Libbey, Rita Revela, Dale Fuller, Cesare Gravina, Lon Poff, S. S. Simon, William Mollenheimer, Hugh J. McCauley, Jack McDonald, and James Gibson
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Writers: Erich von Stroheim and June Mathis
Source Citation: Bodeen, DeWitt. "Greed." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 491-493.